Is there a trick to getting a high score on the ACT?

There are many tricks to getting a higher score on the ACT, but most of them boil down to the fundamentals. Before anything else, students should figure out what their goals are and how long they have to study. If you can give yourself a long runway, focus on consistent, light practice over the long term, and consistently compare your progress to your goals using self-administered diagnostic tests, you’re going to do well. From there, if you tackle your material elements first, making sure that you knock out all of your math and grammar weaknesses, you’re taking an essential first step in the process. If you don’t know how to find the area of a parallelogram, balance an equation, or use a comma, no amount of strategy will help you. As you start to build a plan for material mastery, you should THEN start to work on strategy and tactics and study both in tandem. If you study all the best strategies and tactics by combining them with real material on high quality practice problems, you’ll kill two birds with one stone. And only after those two have been handled should you start worrying about timing and real, test-based application tricks. First master the material and the approach, then practice putting them both to use on timed, realistic exams. I teach countless tricks for all sections of the ACT, but from a 10,000 foot view, this is the process that’s going to get every student a fantastic score, no matter who they are or where they’re starting from.

Why should a student choose to take the ACT vs. the SAT?

A student should pick the test that’s easiest for him or her. That is all. The Old SAT and the ACT are very different, and students need to take a deep look at both exams, try them out, and see which one gives a better comparative score. The New SAT and the ACT are practically identical, and students who study for one will do better on the other. You can learn more about the particulars, but honestly, the simplest advice is this: take a look at official versions of both tests, try them out, and then study for the one you like more. Whichever one gives you less anxiety and seems more doable is the one that you should take. The New SAT and the ACT are so insanely similar that it pretty much boils down to personal preference.

Are certain schools partial to the ACT?

Not at all, though many people think that they are. You can use the concordance table to figure out how SAT and ACT scores compare – from there, your job is to submit the highest comparative score possible. Many people think one test is more important than the other based on regional preferences – people in the Northeast tend to think that the SAT is more important than the ACT, and people in the Midwest tend to think the opposite, but neither is true. Just figure out which test is better for you, study for it, and get the highest comparative score possible.

Are all parts of the ACT equally weighted in how people evaluate it? E.g. – do writing score matter more or do the English, Math, Reading and Science score matter more?

The nice thing about the ACT is that it gives you a “composite score” which is about 90% of the game. The SAT is “additive” – schools take a very hard look at how you do on each of the major sections separately, but on the ACT, the average of all your sections is what matters most. If the schools you’re applying to have certain preferences, they might weight certain areas more (for instance, Amherst might care more about reading, and MIT might care more about math and science) – but overall, if you get a high composite, you don’t need to worry quite as much about your performance on a section by section basis.

Can you give an overview of each of the sections of the ACT? Which is the hardest to do well in?

The ACT has four sections plus an essay. The extremely basic breakdown:

English: uses 75 questions to test your understanding of English grammar and composition. If you know all the major rules of English grammar, and if you understand such concepts as redundancy, irrelevance, and improper sentence structure, you’re going to do well.

Math: gives you 60 questions to test your understanding of arithmetic, geometry, and algebra, along with a few advanced concepts such as imaginary numbers and trigonometry. Strategy and timing are important, but your material knowledge is the key – if you know the ~100 concepts that this section tests, and if you master them, you’ll always end up with a perfect score. And unlike the Old SAT math section, which was based largely on tricks and logical reasoning, ACT math is very straightforward. The real question is, “do you know your stuff?”

Reading: You have 4 passages, 10 questions each, to demonstrate your reading speed and comprehension. This section requires a lot of strategy, and it’s arguably the least straightforward section of the test. You need to think very efficiently and mechanically, and the answer choices are full of land mines that can trip you up if you’re not careful. Strong readers will have an initial leg up, but all students need to learn the right approach and tactics.

Science: this should not be called the science section – it should be called the “using graphs, charts, and numbers to quickly digest information” section. I have a full, free guide on it here: The ACT Science Section. It’s very confusing to students at first, but it has NOTHING to do with science – if you know the right techniques and approaches, and if you practice enough, you can get a perfect score every time.

The essay: tests how well you can argue on behalf of one of three points of view. Most colleges don’t take it very seriously. If you know the right strategies for composing it, and if you get enough experience using a bulletproof template, you’ll always end up with a high score.

Which one is hardest? That totally depends on the student – if you’re great at reading but not as strong at math, then you’re going to find math harder. The real lesson: focus on your weakest areas first, because those will give you the most opportunities for extra points.

How does the score range compare to that of the SAT? What scores are competitive?

The ACT is scored out of 36 points. The best answer to this question is answered by the concordance table, which will show you exactly how every ACT score compares with every possible SAT score. This is the same table admissions officers use to compare scores. “What scores are competitive” depends on where you’re applying. If your target schools expect at least a 1240 on the Math + Critical Reading sections of the SAT, then you should be aiming for at least a 27 or a 28 on your ACT. If you’re applying to a Harvard or a Columbia, you’ll want a 34+. It completely depends on where you want to go, and on researching your target schools and figuring out what scores they expect.

Should a student take the ACT more than once? Is there any downside to taking multiple tests?

I always recommend taking at least two exams, one after the other. The big lesson: do NOT take an official test “just for the heck of it.” You can use in-home diagnostic tests to figure out exactly where you stand (plus or minus a point or so). Set your goals, grab official practice tests, and then figure out where you currently stand. Then test yourself every few weeks to see how your scores are improving. You should only take the official tests when your practice test scores are at or near the level that you want to hit on your real ACT. If not, don’t go in and take it – you won’t “surprise” yourself with a higher score – your performance on this test is extremely predictable. I recommend taking two tests because it reduces stress and enhances the chances that you’ll have a “good day” – there are lots of factors than can affect your score, such as your level of stress and rest, the balance of material on a particular exam, and even the conditions in the testing center. If you take two tests in a row, you’ll make sure that statistics are on your side. As for students taking more than two – the real key is, “get the score you want.” It’s WAY better to take four ACTs and get a great score than to only take one ACT and get a sub-par score. Scores are king. You can reduce the number of tests you take by making sure you have an idea of the level at which you’re performing BEFORE you take an official test, but at the end of the day, your score always trumps the number of times that you attempt the exam.

Should a student take both the ACT and the SAT?

Absolutely not. Focus is key in all areas of life, and especially when it comes to these tests. Figure out which test you prefer, then focus on that one. Studying for two tests make no sense. I often use the following analogy: “getting equivalent SAT and ACT scores and submitting both to colleges is like telling someone that you’re both 6 feet tall and 2 yards tall – you’re using different metrics, but you’re giving them the exact same information.” Colleges will use your BEST score, comparatively, and only that one. You don’t get brownie points for submitting both tests, and you’ll be wasting your time and attention.

How much should a student study each week for the ACT?

It depends on when they start. If you’re a freshman, you can study for 15-20 minutes a day, split into 5-10 minute chunks, study for a year, and end up with an incredible score. If you’re in your senior fall, you might need to study for two hours a day so that you can take the test with a high score before applications are due. Also, if you’re starting with a 31, and you want a 34, you’ll have to do a lot less work than a student with the same goal who’s starting at a 26. The real key is consistency. Rather than make this some ballistic, horrible process, give yourself the breathing room and runway to study EVERY day for small, consistent, focused chunks of time. If you can devote two 15-minute chunks to this process EVERY day, and you’re only in your sophomore year, you can just take practice tests on your own every five or six weeks, and before you know it, you’ll have amazing scores without ever having put yourself through any sort of real stress. You can’t cram for this test, so it’s essential that you plan on light, everyday study instead.

Are the modifications to the ACT testing if a student has a learning disability that may make testing difficult (like dyslexia)?

Yes indeed. The real key is to get them as soon as possible, because the ACT is notorious for making the process a bit challenging. They offer special accommodations for a wide variety of challenges, and if you have dyslexia, ADD, or any other sort of learning disability or physical disability that interferes with your ability to get a high score, you owe it to yourself to secure any accommodations that you can. Speak with your school and start the process today, if possible – the longer you wait, the more challenging it becomes, and I’ve seen these special accommodations make a huge difference for my students. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen families wait too long to start the process and get denied the opportunities that they truly deserve.